Armenian Volunteer Corps

Welcome to the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) blog. Here our volunteers and alumni reflect on their experiences living and volunteering in Armenia. For more information about our programs, visit our website, follow us on Facebook or drop us an email: .

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"When we read we begin with ABC. When we sing, we begin with do re mi." When we browse, we begin with HTTP.

Mandy Ani Messer
Livonia, MI (USA)

After I finished Grad School, in 2006, I made my first trip to Armenia with my 3rd cousin who is one of the few people in my family who speaks the Armenian language. We were the first ones in three generations to come back to the country. I fell in love with so many things here during that trip, and I made a few promises to myself at the same time. I fell in love with the way that people are connected to nature and the weather, the passion that the community has for the arts, the way that everything from the colors of a dance costume to a tombstone has meaning, and the drive of the local Armenian youth that I saw. I met countless people who speak 3+ languages, talented musicians, people hustling and ecstatic to meet me and get to know me and show me around. This is not what you’ll find in the average U.S. city.

The 2 biggest promises I made to myself during that initial trip was to a. come back to Armenia and volunteer, and b. learn the language so that I can speak to locals and connect with my culture one-on-one, on their own turf. So I worked for 3 years and saved. Now, with my stuff stacked in boxes in my parents garage, I’m living, learning and growing each day here in Armenia. Six months into my stay, I can easily say that this experience has been richer than I ever could have imagined it would be.

In between jumping off waterfalls, hiking through mind-blowingly beautiful gorges, asking questions to the Minister of Economy, stumbling through conversations in Armenian with local families, store attendants, and taxi drivers, I manage to find time to dedicate 30 hours to my volunteer placement. I quickly realized that going to work is very different here than in the States. It’s a transfer between one form of family to the next – people care about you. We eat lunch together around a picnic table everyday, and coffee breaks are doses of time dedicated to joking or catching up with the people around you. This is even reflected in the vocabulary – “unkutyun” is the word for “organization or company”, and it literally translates to “friendship”, “gords-unkerner” means “co-workers” but literally translates to “work friends”.

Finding a good fit for a volunteer placement was very important to me since I’m at an early point in my professional career. I had been working in web design for 5 years and don’t want to put the brakes on this. At the same time, I aspire to turn my career toward an international direction… it is very important to me not to stay cooped up in the U.S. for my adult life. So, after a bit of pro-active networking and researching, I found a perfect fit for myself with TUMO. TUMO is an educational organization, aimed at teaching technology and art to high school students in Armenia. TUMO embraces innovative ways of teaching and learning, and will offer a learning environment that will nurture creativity and teamwork in the student body – two things that are not available in Armenia’s current education system, still a carcass of the Soviet Era.

Web development education is taught differently at every education institution. Just in the last 2 years, a movement to standardize the education of web development in the field has begun. I’m involved in this movement now, in an environment so close to my heart – working to benefit Armenian kids – in Armenia! I’m taking a brand new curriculum framework being worked on now by the movers and shakers of the web design field, and adapting it to meet the needs and vision of TUMO. I’ve defined the skills that the students will need to learn, how those skills group together to accomplish learning goals, and I’m writing a collection of activities to teach specific skills to the student body. Many students here will not have been exposed to computers before, and their English language skills may not be strong. So we’re using a lot of images and visuals to teach the skills, and basic concepts to teach terminology. We’ve visited schools and had students come in to test the activities. I’ve gotten the chance to be a part of this innovative education project from the beginning and I’m so lucky for that.

Technology is a sector with a lot of potential in Armenia because Armenia is not rich with natural resources like other countries, so it is key to tap into the creativity of it’s people. TUMO is investing in society’s people right now, it’s intellectual capital. TUMO will give students the opportunity to get hands-on with technology and art, leaving them with a portfolio of work to have as their own. Students who are inclined to continue on and compete in the digital design world will have a strong base to do so. Others will have these skills under their belt to add value to any organization that they’re working in – be it to work on their website, produce video work to spread information, work on presentation or marketing animations, etc. The bottom line is, my work has meaning, both for me and for students and for society.

I have to agree with what one of my fellow volunteers said when I showed him all the things we’re working on – “This is the type of work that you simply can’t find in the U.S.” I whole-heartedly agree. Armenia’s current social fabric offers an opportunity for a massive innovative endeavor such as TUMO. The energy of the young high school students here are just going to eat this up. And the actualization of this vision can thrive in the social fabric of Armenia in a way that it never could in the U.S.

Needless to say, after being here for this extended period, I’ve made more goals for myself. My life ahead has a growing list of “to-do’s” with a flexible itinerary. I can’t wait to drive down these new roads I’ve discovered.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nursing in Gyumri

Natalie Hecht

In May 2009, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in nursing and a strong desire to do something other than work full time or enter graduate school. I was interested only in some sort of adventure. I remembered hearing about Birthright Armenia years before and knew this time was the perfect opportunity for me to head to Armenia and use my new knowledge to volunteer in hospitals.

After speaking with the Armenian Volunteer Corps director, I decided to live in Gyumri, Armenia—not Yerevan as I had anticipated. I was hesitant at first because I thought the culture shock would be tremendous and the language barrier would lend to difficulties. I was correct on both counts, but only in the best possible ways.

In Gyumri, away from the hustle and bustle of a big city, I was fully immersed in the daily life of my host family and new Armenian friends. I quickly gained a true sense of Armenia and the overflowing hospitality that comes with it.

One day, a nurse from work invited me to her home just outside of the city. I arrived in her village to find stone houses, chickens running about, vast fields of sunflowers, and the occasional animal “mooo”. The nurse and her grandmother showed me around their home, giving me samples of homemade lavash, butter, apricot jam, and matsun. Then, the nurse took me door to door and introduced me to everyone as Natalie—the Armenian volunteer from America. All reactions were the same: lots of hugs, bachiks, and generous offerings of food and homemade goods. I was touched. I could hardly communicate, but it did not matter. There was so much love and gratitude between us all. Sometimes, I think, it’s better not to have any words.

My internship took place at the Austrian Children’s Hospital in the intensive care unit. During my initial tour, I noted their lack of equipment, sterile procedure, and glove usage. I identified two personal obstacles right away: First, I was very unfamiliar with their outdated equipment and did not know how I’d be able to practice medicine in such a foreign environment. Second, I only spoke 20 words of Armenian, none of which were relevant in a medical setting.

But, as we say in Armenia, “Vochinch.” It’s nothing. The nurses welcomed me with open arms and worked with me and my Armenian-English dictionaries until we understood each other. As for the equipment, I watched the nurses until I could mimic their procedures. I learned quickly.

Still, I felt sadness most days as I walked around the hospital. Children’s illnesses were prolonged due to inadequate supplies of medication. Lack of sterile equipment led to infection. Outdated x-ray machines made for inefficient and unclear diagnostics. I was frustrated with the discrepancy between what they did not have and what they United States did.

The summer before this, I held an internship at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a state of the art facility with the slogan: Hope Lives Here. During the first part of my internship in Gyumri, I couldn’t help but think: Hope does not live here. How could it in a place with so little?

One morning, I spoke with a doctor about an incredibly jaundiced infant. She told me in English, “Liver problems are very hard for us. But we gave her a blood transfusion last night. When her urine turns from brown to light yellow, we will know she’s okay, so we will wait.”

We will wait…

And so, I was wrong. Hope does live here—in this country with little money but with indescribable zest, personality, history, and tradition. Hope lives here. Maybe not in the same there-is-always-something-more-that-can-be-done attitude that Western medicine has, but in their own special Armenian way, physicians and nurses return to work day after day to do what they can with what they have. And they do it well. This realization was an important one, as it was the moment I stopped comparing Armenia’s medical system to America’s and, like the nurses, maximized the equipment available.

There are some things that words cannot express, and I’ve come across many of them while living in Gyumri. My unforgettable experiences would not have been possible, however, without my goals of complete immersion, eliminating preconceptions and taking advantage of all opportunities. I am so glad I chose Birthright Armenia and AVC as a way to spend my first few post-graduate months. Nothing else would have compared.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Handicrafts in Gyumri

Anush Mirbegian, 26

It came as an absolute surprise to me as the tears started to roll down my checks during my last day at the women’s handicraft workshop where I had been volunteering for the past ten weeks. All of the lovely Gyumri ladies I had come to know were too looking at me with teary eyes. I had not realized until this moment how they had become part of my life and I, part of theirs.

I arrived in Gyumri at the beginning of July and started working at the handicraft workshop for women, a project created by Armenian Caritas to provide a place for women who are victims of domestic violence, girls from orphanages and poor families to learn skills like sewing, knitting and beading.

I have been working in the fashion industry for four years in New York City, freelancing in design, styling and research. Last winter, things started to feel a bit dull and I was in need of some inspiration, so I began a getaway plan for the spring and summer. By a mere accident, I happened upon the Birthright Armenia website, just browsing on wikipedia. Things started to unfold, I found AVC through Birthright and three months later, I was in Gyumri.

The women at the workshop were students of Nelli, one of the best seamstresses in Gyumri and I was there to assist her and attempt to bring something to the table that they had not previously learned. I racked my brain and decided I had the opportunity to inspire these women to think a little bigger and brighter than they had before. This proved to be one of my biggest challenges during my time in Armenia. I brought in art books, photos and clothes, whatever was inspiring me at that particular moment and shared it with them. I gave presentations about working in New York, like how to design a line and what happened on fashion magazine photo shoots. I managed to create an open forum and encouraged them to share what inspired them and they did. They presented me with sketches of their ideas, books on ancient Armenian costumes and things they had created during the beading and knitting classes. It felt like a truly unique experience because we were all sharing our inspirations and work and learning from one another and from the different lives we lead.

I worked individually with each of the women on their specific projects, which gave me the chance to get to know all of them on a personal level and this was invaluable to me. I fondly think back on our intense discussions about life in Gyumri, meals shared and all the laughs we had.

Toward the end of my time at the workshop, Zhanna, the Caritas project manager came to me with a new idea. She wanted to create a set of Armenian dolls that would be produced and hand worked on by the women of the workshop and then sold in Armenia and she asked me to give a hand in designing them. I was so pleased to be part of the beginning of this project and my desire to be involved in its evolution will bring me back to Armenia in the next few years.

Anush currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She is working on a number of projects including designing menswear, styling for Italian Vogue, art directing a new magazine and researching and reporting on fashion and lifestyle trends.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

From Unemployed in New York to Fully Employed in Gyumri

Marin Preske

Like so many other Americans, I lost my job early on in 2009. I had been on the editorial staff of a magazine in New York City and when its publisher decided to close several titles due to the economic crisis, I joined the ranks of the newly unemployed. Freelance projects kept me busy for a few months – after nearly 10 years in the industry, I had enough connections to keep me afloat. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my current circumstance was chance for new and different opportunities. The prospect of landing a position at another magazine left me feeling unsatisfied, and while I didn’t know exactly what to do, I knew major change was in order. I tend to turn to travel in times of introspection, and so I started researching online. I looked into UN projects in Southeast Asia. Considered joining the Peace Corps. But nothing clicked. Then I heard about AVC.

During the application process, I opted to reside outside of Yerevan (after Manhattan, I needed a break from big cities and knew a different Armenia existed beyond the capital) and so agreed to live and work in Gyumri. With a background in media and photography, my professional experience consisted of conceiving and writing editorial, directing and producing shoots, heading visual art competitions, curating shows. I couldn’t imagine how AVC might parlay all of that into a job placement that could match my skills and interests (and wanted me). But I vowed to remain open-minded and explained that I’d be receptive to anything from the visual arts to humanitarian work. And somehow they found my perfect match.

I ended up at Caritas, a global NGO whose Armenian branch is headquartered in Gyumri. During my time there, I focused on two main projects that couldn’t have been more different – the ideal balance. First off, I worked on an EU-funded community development project aimed at 15 villages in some of the poorest areas of the country. Through business training (that includes access to a revolving grant) and local community action, the program seeks to improve social and economic conditions in the targeted areas. With the aim of empowering communities to become self-reliant, the program demonstrates that an individual has the ability to improve his or her own life. Not only was it rewarding to watch various communities band together and draft business plans (with little resources), but it also provided insight into the lingering post-Soviet mentality that plagues much of the country. My role consisted of working on the project manual – a tool kit that might serve as a guide for the project. Based out of the Caritas office, my colleagues and I traveled to nearby villages to see work in effect and made a special visit to Georgia since their Caritas branch successfully implemented a similar project the year before.

My second order of business was hosting photography workshops. As part of the United Nations’ 2010 End of Poverty goals, Caritas is in preparation for a round of events next year, which will include a visual arts exhibit on how youth sees poverty. I created and conducted two-day workshops for local Armenians aged 16-25. Each day we viewed photographs, discussed tips and techniques and went out into their everyday environment to shoot with fresh perspectives. I worked with participants one-on-one to offer feedback and highlight individual styles. It was gratifying to watch a bunch of teenagers walk in the first day more interested in text messaging, and leave asking me for my email address so they could continue to send me photographs after I had left. I even ended up conducting workshops for the Caritas staff itself, nearly logging 60 hours one workweek due to the turnout and enthusiasm.

I’ve returned from Armenia and still am unsure of exactly where my future lies. But looking back at my time in Gyurmi, I feel I gained as much as I gave. And the experience has opened my eyes to a whole new set of possibilities.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Just the Right Fit

Amy Hunter, Musician-Pianist
Age 28, USA
July 15-September 3, 2009

My decision to come to Armenian this summer was a no brainer. I have always wanted to do volunteer work, but the timing was always off, and my interest in my family history only deepens and intensifies as I get older. I didn’t grow up immersed in the Armenian culture as many of the volunteers did. Although I am half Armenian I grew up in rural Maine. My link to Armenia was when I went to Boston to visit my grandparents. I would listen to them speak Armenian, eat lots of dolma, baklava and home made rose-pedal jelly, watch my grandfather play tavli with my cousin, and watch my grandmother sweep through the kitchen all day in her slippers cooking and making coffee.

This summer was the perfect time for me to be away for two months. I completed a bachelor and master’s degree in classical piano performance from the Esther Boyer School of Music in Philadelphia, where I currently live and can easily get time off during the summer months from work. When I filled out my AVC application my first choice for job placement was to teach or play music, but thinking that this may be a more difficult field than most to find work, I wrote that I would also help build homes. Much to my surprise I got placed teaching piano and re-designing the music program at a private school in Yerevan. I played it pretty cool leading into my travels. I didn’t obsess or imagine what it would be like. I didn’t want false expectations or to find myself saddened with unfulfilled dreams. Word of advice- this is the best way to travel!

I first walked though the doors of Macsedan School about 8 weeks ago. It’s a private school that specializes in languages. All students learn English, Armenian, Russian and then either German or French. I speak English and... English, these kids put me to shame! Language classes provided though Birthright Armenia are great. I actually have a tutor all to myself, so, I am definitely progressing, but was also relieved to find out that the students I would be giving piano lessons to can speak English. The school is technically closed for the summer so the unbelievable staff and I began to formulate a teaching schedule immediately for those students not on holiday who are able to come in. In Philadelphia my students come in once a week for 30-45 minutes and with at least half of them I am keeping my fingers crossed that they have practiced. Not the case in Armenia. Every student wanted to come in either three days a week, or every day for a lesson and they were all excited to be playing! I was already loving Armenia, making minor cultural adjustments, finding my way around the city, attending numerous fantastic diverse concerts at the Opera House and Open Air Fest, forming special life-long relationships with the staff at AVC, Birthright, and all the volunteers, but now the best part of being here was about to begin. All of my students at Macsedan are just a plethora of wonderful things. They are well rehearsed for every lesson, they are respectful, interested, intelligent, motivated and helped me immensely with my Armenian! I loved speaking Armenian with them, I was able to let my guard down and also help them with their English. Lessons flow easily and quickly in Armenia.

On September 1st there was a performance put on by the current students for the newly enrolled students. I was able to perform, students put on a play, sang the Macsedan anthem, etc. At the end of the performance one of my students came up to me and gave me a huge hug. She pulled away and asked me “Am I going to see you tomorrow?” Tomorrow was the first day of classes, and also the day before I reluctantly return to the States. I had a mile long list of things to do, not to mention pack, so I replied “I’m not sure.” She reached over and gave me another long genuine hug and walked away. I turned around and another one of my students was standing next to me. The same question! All of my students came up to me that day and greeted me once more before I had to leave. Leading into that day I already knew that I loved Armenia, that this experience had influenced my being, memories and relationships with volunteers and the Macsedan staff were imbedded and that my volunteer placement was the right fit and that I wasn’t ready to leave. These students made a very deep impression on me and when I thought I didn’t need any more convincing there it was right in front of me.